Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Complex Ethics

Is lying always wrong?

Think of the last movie you saw. Who was the good guy? Who was the bad guy?

Which is greater: to kill or to let live? And what if killing results in saving the lives of your family; to let live results in their rape and death? And what if killing results in the lives of your family but the loss of the lives of thirty others?

Feel the Tension
I bet that you answered question 1 with ‘yes,’ and then questioned yourself: remembering the last time you told a ‘white lie,’ or more seriously remembering people who hid Jews during the Nazi regime.

I bet that the last movie you saw had a good guy with severe flaws—probably a criminal past too—who rebels against the laws; and I bet the bad guy was the one who followed all the rules, was clean and kempt, and probably told a lot of truth.

And I bet that in the final questions you answered, “Let live! Kill! Ugh!—why does there even have to be this possibility?! Why can’t everything be good?”

Ethics are complex. Immanuel Kant, many years ago, came up with a theory of ethics called the “Categorical Imperative.” In the theory he states that lying is always wrong 100% of the time. Many commentator and ethicists have noted that Kant has no way of resolving conflict between competing moral imperatives. Of course, Kant isn’t the only one who has composed a theory of ethics, and he isn’t the only one who has problems in his theory. Consider William James’ pragmatism: the right thing is the one which achieves the greatest good for the greatest number of people. And yet what is “good”? Aristotle’s theory of ethics has much to commend it, particularly in his view of discipleship to be taught the good, and in his attempt to bring pleasure and good to convergence; but what of his “Golden Mean” where the good is to find the happy medium between two extremes—is an extreme never to be preferred?

There is Augustinian Ethics aptly summarized in “Love God, and do what you will.” But that has been hijacked by moral relativists to sanction illicit sexuality, fraudulence, and other sinful actions. And it is somewhat abstract regardless. So what are we to do with these blurred lines—the grayscale of heroes, conflict of interest, and insatiable desire for the good, beautiful, and true?

Inherent Justice
The only reason we struggle with these questions, from a Christian worldview, is because we have an inherent sense of justice. We have a desire for shalom—peace absolute and unfettered; perfect and eternal. Why? Because we were created in the image of God for perfect and eternal communion with him in a community of love with others. You and I have a sense of ‘ought’ and ‘ought not.’ The difficulty arises by our own hand on account of the fall which we partook of with our first father and mother—you and I live in a sin-ridden world with things out of joint.

Sometimes the right answer is the hard one.
Sometimes the easy thing is the right thing to do.
Sometimes the right thing isn’t even an option.
Sometimes it’s because our previous choices limit our current ones.
Sometimes our current choices promise only to further a hole—even if they’re the right thing.
And yet… even at this our hearts know this itself is not the way it ought to be.

We ought to be able to choose and to choose rightly—for the good choice to always be clear, and for nobody to get hurt in the process. But that’s not the way things are. And that’s not right. And we’re the ones to blame.

But there has to be a way forward. We can’t simply wallow and call, “Woe is me; woe is us.” We can't simply sit in disillusionment and be content to live a nihilism not fit for humanity—that’s not living: it’s simply existing.

The Way Forward
Cornelius Plantinga Jr. proposes the seed of an ethics system in describing sin as “culpable shalom breaking.” He goes on to pose a question, and it is only a question: which act breaks shalom: telling your friend/spouse the dress is unflattering, or extolling their beauty? I’ve paraphrased his actual question for two reasons: one—to recognize that sometimes ‘beating around the bush’ may avoid shalom-breaking while achieving the greater end; and two—to build upon Plantinga’s thought and show that ethics is not actually about what not to do.

Let me explain. Should you eat pizza or salad? Don’t feel guilty for wanting the pizza. A salad may not be possible, or you may be allergic to raw tomatoes (but not sauce); and in fact pizza has been shown to provide a lot of nutrients (provided it’s the right kind of pizza). Regardless of your choice, you must eat to survive. And both choices are a good choice.  Is one better than another? Most likely. But a marathon runner won’t survive on a salad for lunch and dinner. So maybe the pizza is actually better. Calories, after all, aren’t a bad thing—no matter what that magazine at the checkout stand tells you. By now, you think I’m sidetracked, and that pizza has nothing to do with ethics. I dare say you’re wrong. For two reasons.

Reason 1: Food directly affects your body. Your body is a gift of God. Ethics is about relating in shalom toward others. Shalom finds its primary reference point in Yahweh. The things that you eat have implications on your perspective of God’s creation of your body. What’s more, God has designed our bodies to work a certain way. Undernourish, malnourish, or overnourish your body, and there will be physical complications which may lead to your inability to care for family members, to engage in disaster relief, to be an example of health to children. Your food choice directly and indirectly determine your ability to ethically live.

Reason 2: Food reminds us that there are several good options. Chicken or beef? Chicken is healthier, unless you suffer from iron deficiency. Soymilk or Almond Milk? Both have calcium, both are tasty… both are good for you… unless you have an estrogen surplus. And what about 2% milk and 1% milk? Or whole milk? Or coconut milk? Just milk leaves us with numerous choices (but don’t forget about how finances plays into these choices). All of these choices are good, and some are better than others for certain reasons: finances, health, cows. But let’s say you can choose any of them, which do you choose and why? I hope that the ultimate reason is “because I want to” or “because I like the taste.” In other words, “It brings me pleasure.”

I’m not a hedonist. I’m not an Epicurean. I’m a God-loving, eschaton-pursuing human. And ethics isn’t always about a right and a wrong. Sometimes it’s about a good and a better. You woke up in the middle of the night, what do you do?
Option 1: Pray
Option 2: Go back to sleep, enjoying the rest your creator has given you

Why is it that we think God is always waiting for us to choose the wrong thing? Why is it that we so often tend to think of ethics and choices in a 2D plane—you can only go left or you can go right? When will we stop creating false dichotomies, and start living in a 3-dimensional world—where choices abound… many bad ones tempting us, and many good ones calling our name? What will you do tomorrow evening? Bible study? Dinner with old friends? Fasting? A romantic date? Reading that new book? Writing that one that’s been on your mind? Which one is right/ which one is good? All of them! Which one will you do? That’s for you to decide—not a decision overshadowed with guilt and uncertainty: it’s one for you to decide with rejoicing that God has given you the opportunity to choose and that whichever you choose will help in preparing you for eternity with him.

Stop looking at things as left and right; start looking at things as good things, better things, and best things. Start viewing the world you live in and the choices you make with an eye to the glory of God in anticipation of an eternity living and loving him and his people.

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Soon to come:
Complex Ethics Part 2: When You're Invisible
Complex Ethics Part 3: Pleasure
Complex Ethics Part 4: Ethics in Eternity
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Related:
Water, Wine, and Whiskey
Exaggeration as Truth